ISTANBUL — The stakes were high, the parties present and the fight about to begin. From the outside, it would look as if the odds were not in my favor. Seven of them. One of me. But, matter it did not — I was about to take them on.
This was my introduction to Turkey. Not ten minutes after I left Atatürk International Airport I heard the words that no foreign traveler ever wants to hear — “Big Problem.” The man telling me this had realized the price quote given at the airport had been off and was trying to convey that I was going to have to pay more to get to my destination. I wasn’t having it.
Next thing I knew I was standing in the middle of a taxi dispatch center with seven Turks attempting to explain their mistake. After both sides aired their grievances in a high decibel faceoff, a price was agreed upon and off I went. Destination? The Bosphorus Channel, divider of Asia and Europe and my neighbor for the next four months.
Not quite Europe, not quite Asia and filled with strong conflicting currents, the Bosphorus epitomizes Turkey in many ways. Since its inception, Turkey has always contained extreme internal contradictions. Given the dramatic nature in which this country was formed, that much could have been expected.
The founding came in 1923 as a humiliated and defeated Ottoman Empire was split up and colonized after allying with Germany in World War 1. Under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk, what remained went through a radical transformation. No longer was Islam the official religion, no longer could the men wear their traditional fez and the women their headscarf. Prayer was to be called out in Turkish, Arabic characters were changed to Latin, suffrage was granted to women and anyone who opposed this radical new direction was crushed.
Around Turkey the monuments and posters in Atatürk’s honor are everywhere. It’s as if the deceased leader still leads this nation and, in many ways, he still does.
When Atatürk came to power, he needed ultimate authority to implement his reforms, and while Turks worship Atatürk for the reforms he brought, much of the power needed to bring that reform stayed in the hands of the state and not the people.
This concept is described by author Stephen Kinzer who pushes the point home with the analysis of a single word — devlet. The word, meaning state, refers to an acceptance that, in Turkey, state comes before everything. Often this means before law, before human rights and before justice. “Develt,” says Kinzer, “is an omnipotent entity that stands above every citizen and every institution ... questioning it is considered treason.”
But what is this state? Often the Turkish state can be defined by its secular nature; those who threaten that nature threaten the state and those who threaten the state can be guilty of no greater crime. But, because the state (whose power rests in the hands of the military) has been held in such high regard for so long, the power it wields (and uses) can often be seen as infallible. This has led to a form of ultra-nationalism here, an unapologetic acceptance of the state’s actions as just and its mission righteous.
Where has this power led? Well, in the words of my new Turkish friend, often to “Big Problems.” The problem seen up front is that of Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union. In a world that often thinks Islam vs. the West, many think that Turkey’s main obstacle to membership is it’s Islamic population. Not so. The Union demands democratization and not conversion. While Turkey has made progress, the membership committee watches and waits for the last seeds of supreme power to be given back to the people. Until then, Turkey’s membership application will do nothing but gather dust.
The problem not as prominent in the world’s conscience is that of long and brutal internal and external conflicts here. Be it with the Kurds, Armenians or, until recently, the Greeks, Turkey has always been averse to admitting fault. And, as far as conflicts go, they generally don’t end without at least a little bit of humility on the part of both sides.
Why do I tell you this? Because recently things have shown signs of great change. This summer, the ruling party was put on trial for advancing a non-secular agenda permitting headscarves to be worn in universities. Normally, this would mean doom for those in power. This time, the courts voted to keep them in. Just last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul accepted an Armenian invitation to watch a Turkish Armenian soccer match. The acceptance was heralded as a brave step towards Turkish Armenian reconciliation. Wednesday, the government announced a bold plan to boost development in Kurdish Turkey, tacit admission of the need to reach out to that community.
This nation is bristling with change and preparing for the next step. More and more of these small but powerful moves are made every day, more and more Turkey advances toward a great new future with limitless potential. Its rise will tremendously impact the west. I’d recommend (without bias, of course) staying tuned.
Alex Kantrowitz, a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, will report this semester from Istanbul, Turkey. For further coverage, check out his blog at http://smokedturkey.wordpress.com. Alex can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Smoked Turkey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.